It would appear that after two decades of futility at the position, the Buffalo Bills have their franchise quarterback in Josh Allen. If he can keep up his start to the 2020 season, they might also have their first NFL MVP since Thurman Thomas in 1991.
Through his first four games, Allen has put up numbers comparable to those of the league’s previous two MVPs — quarterbacks Lamar Jackson of the Baltimore Ravens (2019) and Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs (2018). That’s the good news for Bills fans ready to coronate Allen. His 1,326 passing yards are ahead of Jackson’s and Mahomes’ totals during the first four games of their MVP seasons, as is Allen’s 71% completion percentage. His 12 touchdown passes rank second among the trio.
As the Bills (4-0) prepare to face the Tennessee Titans (3-0) on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, CBS), Allen is on pace for 5,304 yards and 48 passing touchdowns, both of which would have led the league in 2019. It’s reasonable to doubt Allen will hit those figures; he threw for 5,163 yards and 30 touchdowns in 27 starts prior to the 2020 season. But the third-year quarterback has left no doubt as to how much he has developed since entering the league as the No. 7 overall pick in 2018.
“I had numerous talks with [offensive coordinator Brian] Daboll, [coach Sean] McDermott and [general manager Brandon] Beane. I made a vow to them … that I’d be a better quarterback and do things the right way,” Allen said. “This isn’t just me doing it, though — it’s been a small army between Daboll and [quarterbacks coach Ken] Dorsey and the front office bringing in the guys that they’ve brought in, and in the offseason, working with [offseason QB coach] Jordan Palmer. … Tt’s been a long process.
“I’ve got a long way to go. In no way am I saying that I’ve arrived or I’m there.”
Palmer said Allen has refined several aspects of his game, from tightening his base to throwing with anticipation and control. He also has been far more hesitant to scramble when plays start to break down this season.
Over the previous two seasons, only Deshaun Watson scrambled more often than Allen, but no quarterback recorded more yards or touchdowns while doing so than Allen’s 820 and eight, respectively. Factoring in designed quarterback runs, Allen ranked second in yards and attempts over that span, and he led QBs with 17 rushing touchdowns.
This season, however, Allen’s four scrambles are tied for 19th most in the NFL, and his 32 yards rank 20th. He is fourth among QBs in rushing attempts with 25 — but 14 of those came during the Bills’ season opener against the Jets and five occurred with goal-to-go. While Allen’s running and improvisational abilities allowed him to make plays with his legs entering this season, he has matured enough as a passer to allow his receivers’ routes to develop.
On first-and-10 from the Las Vegas 15-yard line, Allen faked a handoff to Devin Singletary before observing the short field. At the time Allen decided to throw the ball, his primary receivers — Brown and Stefon Diggs — had 1.4 yards and 1.8 yards of separation, respectively. Allen didn’t have the cleanest running lane, but he did have Bills left guard Cody Ford standing between Raiders linebacker Cory Littleton and enough open field to pick up a first down with his legs.
We don’t know what was better…the throw or the catch.* 🤯
*And that looked like a touchdown to us.
— Buffalo Bills (@BuffaloBills) October 4, 2020
Allen moved on from his first read, Diggs, suppressed the instinct to run and fired a pass to Brown at the goal line. Brown made a spectacular catch that was ruled down at the 1-yard-line. It was a throw and catch worthy of recognition, given Brown’s .27 yards of separation by the time the ball arrived.
Beyond his development into more of a pocket passer than a scrambler, Allen has also increased his accuracy on multiple types of throws that he struggled with during his first two seasons.
Allen was drafted in large part because of his arm strength, but it didn’t immediately translate onto the field in his first 27 starts. During the 2018 and 2019 seasons, Allen was the second-worst passer in the league on passes that traveled at least 20 yards, ahead of only the New York Jets‘ Sam Darnold. Allen completed 26.5% of such passes despite attempting the sixth most in the NFL during that span.
This season, Allen ranks fourth with a 68.8% completion percentage on passes that travel at least 20 yards downfield.
The same goes for crossing routes, which Allen targeted more often than all but nine quarterbacks over the past two years, despite completing a league-worst 42.5% of the passes. In 2020, he has raised that percentage to 78.6% while leading the league with 14 attempts through four games.
“It starts with a slight mechanic change that we worked on in the offseason, talking to numerous people and trying to fix some things and allow myself to be a more rotational thrower and get my hip through,” Allen said. “Then you add in the guys we’ve got running routes. A lot of trust goes into it, putting the ball up there. I think we’ve got one of the better receiver corps in the league. … It really is a team effort.”
As simple as it sounds, Allen’s improved accuracy can also be credited to reps, repeatedly practicing the same routes — but with a twist.
This offseason, Allen said he trained with receivers of all different sizes, speed and skill levels, from professional all the way down to high school. The experience made him get used to fitting the ball into windows from a variety of different angles.
For a quarterback with arguably the strongest arm in the NFL, it taught him to take something off his throws every now and then.
“Just the fact that we had all those different options, it forced you to change your throwing motion,” Allen said. “You weren’t throwing to the same spot each time. It was something different, something new. In your mind, things just kind of click differently when you have that amount of good reps. That’s kind of what I’ve been feeling.”
Allen’s willingness to push the ball downfield and into tight windows hasn’t changed much over the past three years, but his newfound efficiency makes those risks easier for the Bills to accept. He said he has tried to tone down the “hero ball” tendencies from his first two seasons, where he would try to do too much during a play and often hurt the team.
Those plays are few and far between in 2020, although he admits “the gunslinger comes out” periodically. Its lone appearance in Week 4 was a sack Allen took that knocked Buffalo out of field goal range. Instead of throwing the ball away when it became clear no one was open, he tried to evade the Raiders’ rush and failed to get away. He immediately knew his mistake and was clearly frustrated with himself as he walked off the field.
“He tries to get better each week. It’s not like we want to go out there and have bad plays happen,” Daboll said. “When he gets into a situation like that again, maybe a better decision. But again, those decisions sometimes that he makes, where he scrambles away and looks downfield and makes a play or uses his legs, those are winning plays for a team.
“They’re tough to defend. So [I’m] never going to take that away from him, because that’s part of his game. I have enough trust that he’ll do what he needs to do to help his team win.”